Smoke Rings – Jennifer Ostopovich
March 17, 2023
The creek lay a hundred or so yards beyond the tear in the chainlink fence that separated an expanse of tallow farmland from a row of battered-siding swathed mobile homes. Backs turned, we stripped down to nothing, then slid into the cold rush of the water, one at a time, while the other pretended not to look. J submerged, then broke for air. Water dripped from his chin length bleached blond hair and beaded on the gooseflesh of his lean shoulders. We giggled and splashed while our too skinny, adolescent bodies floated in the frigid water, buoyed by the prospect of catching sight of the bits of pale flesh hidden just below the surface. I waded in closer. J’s hand circled my wrist and he pulled me through the water towards him, close enough that his leg skimmed my thigh, the puckered skin rubbing like sandpaper. He bent towards me and our lips grazed. The connection warmed me, but the kiss was short lived. I was disappointed to find that it was over before it had even really begun. J pulled away and made for shore, his arms sliced the water in graceful strokes.
After, clothes clinging to still dewy bodies, we warmed ourselves in the heat of the midday prairie sun. I sat crosslegged on a piece of deadfall, while J rolled a joint from the pot he’d pinched from his mom’s boyfriend’s stash.
“That asshole has so much of the shit he doesn’t even notice,” he said as he passed me the joint, still wet from where his shivering, blue tinged lips had bogarted it. His mom’s boyfriend kept a pharmacopeia in a tin lock box in the kitchen cupboard. J had memorized the lock combination months ago while watching him open it, and we’d had a steady supply of drugs since. With the stock always in flux, a little skim off the top here and there never seemed to be missed.
The local potheads and junkies were always coming and going from J’s place. His trailer was directly behind ours, lined up like end to end Kit Kat bars. Sometimes in the evenings I’d sit on the back porch and listen to the parade of rusted Irocs and Nascar decaled Monte Carlos, pump out AC/DC and ICP, the bass so loud it’d nearly break your teeth. A few of the druggies were scam artists, some were paranoid, and they’d start loud disputes in the yard: bad actors, with bad dialogue, acting out plebeian melodramas. No need to be inconspicuous. No one in the trailer park would dare call the police on a neighbour. But it wasn’t just the comings and goings of loud cars, or the farcical theatrics that could be heard over the tops of the splintered fence boards that separated our two trailers. Sometimes it was a tragic opera. The furious song of an enraged baritone or the desperate keening of a supplicate contralto.
J had asked me out a few times, but I’d avoided any kind of romantic entanglement on account of my friend, Tanya wanting to date him. Or at least, I had until two weeks before when we’d found ourselves the only two remaining at J’s place after everyone had scattered at dinner time.
My mom had been working late shift, mopping the floors at the high school in town, and my dad, who was between jobs because he’d called his boss a prick during a disagreement, had been pounding back cans of Club beer since well before noon. I knew it was unlikely there’d be any dinner to go home to, so I’d opted to stay and hang out.
J had invited me into his bedroom to hear him play guitar. He’d played clumsily, his long fingers tripping over the cords like the gangly legs of a newborn colt, still trying to find its footing. It was something angsty and soulful by Stone Temple Pilots. I recognized the tune right away, but I couldn’t remember the song.
He finished the song and set the guitar aside, then lay sideways on the bed beside me, propping his chin on one wiry arm. Brushing a lock of electric yellow hair from a razor sharp cheekbone, he cast his pale blue eyes to the wall. “I just started practicing that one, it needs some work still. Once I get a bit better I plan to start a band.”
“That’s so cool.” Even if he wasn’t really any good yet, I liked that he’d played for me. Liked watching the way his face scrunched up when he was concentrating, or how his full lips had curved into a smile when he’d hit on the right chord. “What’ll you name your band?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it. All I know is I’m going to be rich and famous one day so I can get the fuck outta here.”
It wasn’t uncommon to see three generations of family and extended family all living within blocks of each other in the trailer park. Like most other white trash kids, he’d pinned his hopes of getting out on making it big. Academics were never really considered a realistic option for us kids. Most of us had never met anyone who’d gone to college—except maybe our teachers, who mostly either pitied or disdained us. Our parents never cared about our grades, so neither did we. Nearly every kid in the trailer park had some pipe dream, the alternative of low skill/low pay jobs or collecting welfare checks too depressing to consider. For most of the guys it was basketball—some weren’t bad, but none were good enough to make it beyond the school team. Some of the prettier girls thought they might make it as models, but the closest any of them ever came was paying some strip-mall scam artist photographer for cheesy glam shots and an occasional stint in a local retail catalogue or as a sunshine girl on the back page of the morning SUN.
“How about you? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I chewed at the skin around my fingernails. “I don’t know. Maybe an artist?”
“For real? Hey, I’ve seen those drawings you have on your wall. Did you do all of those?”
“That one of the dragon is awesome!”
“Thanks,” I said, suddenly feeling too self conscious. The drawings weren’t really all that great. I felt like my skill had progressed a bit since the sixth grade when I’d ripped the dated wallpaper off my bedroom wall and covered the wall in flash art sketches, painstakingly copied from my dad’s tat mags. The sketches had included a skull and a six foot long, fire breathing dragon. My mom had been pissed.
“You should draw me sometime. Everyone tells me I have good bones.” He laughed and began to trace a circular pattern across my thigh.
I inspected his angular features, admiring his strong jaw and the small dimple on his chin. He did have good bones. “Maybe I will.”
His fingers wound a trail higher up my bare leg. When he reached the frayed threads of my cut off denim shorts, he paused for a moment to gauge my reaction. When I didn’t pull away, he continued, inching his hand up. I became absorbed by the rhythm of his breathing, which came in quick, shallow pants, and the way he looked at me while he touched me—like I was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen. After, we lay on the bed together and stared up at the ceiling. I found it thrilling, and despite my reservations of what Tanya might say if she found out, I’d been sneaking away with him for clandestine kisses and caresses ever since.
After we left the creek, we walked to J’s place. J was often tasked with watching his younger siblings and he’d invite us all over to hang out on battered, overstuffed furniture while he babysat, so his trailer had become a bit of a gathering place for our friend group. It was a standard issue mobile home, similar to ours in layout, but a few years newer, as evidenced by the shift in color palette from browns and oranges to greys and blues. The interior was all Formica and cheap composite and reeked of the stale cigarettes overflowing from the gold ashtray that crowned the oak veneer coffee table.
J sat across from me in the recliner. His jaw worked rhythmically, forming diaphanous rings with the smoke from his cigarette, while his five-year-old brother and eight year old sister vied for our attention with a series of acrobatics and Power Ranger inspired high kicks.
I had swore J to secrecy about our trysts to avoid the drama with Tanya, and Runt was with us in his living room, so we skipped the pawing and made due with the occasional smile and stolen glance.
Allen, who we referred to affectionately as Runt, on account of his being stunted and not much taller than most ten year olds, had worn the same jet black mullet and rotation of metal shirts since I’d first met him in the second grade. That day it was the Megadeth shirt, with the large rip in the hem. He sat beside me on the couch, laughing at the antics of J’s little brother who, not satisfied with the reaction to his high kicks, had decided to pull his pants down and moon the crowd. Runt was laughing so hard he was crying, doubled over with his head in his hands.
Felicity, J’s sister, was mortified. “Eww! Tell him to pull his pants back up!”
J blew another smoke ring. “Jake, pull your pants back up, no one wants to see your butt, man.”
Jake let out a peal of ecstatic giggles, pleased with his audience’s reaction.
Runt ran a finger through one of J’s ever widening series of smoke rings, changing the ephemeral hoop into a wobbly figure eight. “Let’s get out of here.” He had a line on someone to buy us forties of cheap malt beer for a house party later in exchange for a couple of joints and a few bucks, and wanted us to go with him to pick them up.
J hesitated. His mom and her boyfriend were in the back bedroom, sleeping off a three day bender—or maybe they were fucking, who knew—but before holing up with her boyfriend, his mom had told him he needed to stick around and look after his little brother and sister.
“Aww, come on.” Runt said, “We won’t be gone long.”
We headed towards Runt’s uncle’s place. His uncle who lived two doors down from him, was the one doing the bootlegging for us. My hair was still all scraggly and stinking of creek water, so I decided to head back to my own trailer to shower before the party and leave the pair to go on without me.
I passed J the cash I’d made from babysitting Sheri Anne’s two kids. The older of the two kids was crazy. Last time I babysat he’d pulled a butcher knife from the kitchen drawer when I had told him to go to his room for a time out after punching his baby brother. I’d had to wrestle the damn thing out of his grip and barricade him in his room while he’d tried to smash through the walls like some fucking pint sized Hulk. Kid wasn’t even six yet and was already destined for a stint in Juvie. Like father like son. Not only hadn’t Sheri Anne given me a tip for my troubles, she’d given me an IOU for half the pay and said she’d get me next time. It was her way of trying to strong arm me into sitting for her again. I had already said my piece with the lost pay though and considered it good as gone. There was no way I was setting foot in that trailer to watch her brats again.
I made to part ways, but realized I’d run out of cigarettes. “Hey, can I bum a smoke?”
J felt around his pant pockets. “Shit. Sorry, I forgot mine on the coffee table.”
“Here, have mine. I can roll some more later at home.” Runt pulled a cigarette from behind his ear and tossed it to me. It made a graceful white arc, before landing in my outstretched palms.
“Thanks,” I said through clenched teeth, as I put the cigarette to my lips and lit it. “I owe you one.”
The shrill whine of sirens broke through the beat of the water against the plastic of the tub. The sirens were uncomfortably close and didn’t seem to be dissipating.
I stepped out and ran a towel over my body and a wide toothed comb through my blonde hair, then pulled on a pair of baggy blue jeans and a Calvin Kline crop top and slipped out the front door. The street was filled with people, and an ominous blue fog hung in the air, carrying with it the acrid chemical odour of burnt synthetic materials.
I stepped out onto the pavement and was greeted by Wilma, our kindly older neighbour to the left. “What the heck is going on?” I shouted over the chaotic din of the sirens.
“There’s a fire. It’s the Stevenson’s place.” She directed my attention behind the trailer, where black smoke was pouring from the shattered windows of J’s place. She shook her head. “I sure hope them little kids aren’t still in there.”
I didn’t stay to speculate, instead I sprinted around the corner and down the street towards the fire truck and ambulance.
J was there, sitting on the pavement beside the emergency vehicle, knobby knees drawn up to his chest. He stared forward unblinking, moist eyes rimmed in red.
“Hey, you okay?” I sat down beside him, my heart trying its damndest to beat a hole through my chest. For a moment, right before my eyes had fixed on his shock of neon yellow hair through the crowd of gawkers, I’d felt a pang of fear.
He wiped his face on the sleeve of his T-shirt. “Yeah. Just shaken up. They got mom and the kids in the ambulance, they’re treating them for smoke inhalation, but everyone is ok.” His shoulders slumped and he choked out a sob. “For a minute, before I got to the ambulance… I thought they were still in there.”
Later, after the embers had cooled and the family was safe at a relative’s house, J called me. He was morose and there was shame in his voice when he spoke. “It was all my fault, you know.”
“No way,” I reassured him. “How could the fire be your fault? You weren’t even there when it happened.”
“Jake was trying to smoke one of my cigarettes. I left them on the coffee table. He said he just wanted to try to blow a smoke ring. When mom came out he got scared and threw it between the couch cushions. We don’t even have insurance, we lost everything. God, they could have died, and it’s all my fault. I was supposed to be watching them.”
“Fuck. I, I don’t even know what to say. Well, thanks for calling.” I hit the end call button on the phone call and sat in stunned silence, contemplating the motes of dust that swirled through the empty air in front of me to avoid digesting the news. The tears came slowly at first, then in torrents. Until there was nothing left but a few dry sobs. I wondered if it was strange to be so heartsick over the death of someone I’d seen less than a handful of times over the span of the previous two decades.
Once I’d regained some composure, I dialed up Candice. J had been best friends with her high school boyfriend. We’d all spent more than a few endless summer afternoons piled into her mom’s Dodge Spirit cruising around together, listening to 2pac, or puffing away at joints on the cement back steps of the Alliance church together. I thought she’d want to know.
“Hey. Thought I’d call cause it felt weird to say it over text. I just got a call from Runt…”
“What’s up?” Her voice echoed in the bathroom, coming through the line much too loud. I heard the splash of her kids in the tub.
It took me some time to get the words out. “J died. He, he’s dead.” I don’t know what else to say, so I let the words just hang there.
“Oh yeah, I heard. Sounds like he was probably driving drunk and crashed his motorcycle.
“Fuck. Hang on a sec.” There was a muffled shout. “Neil! Leave your sister alone. No, just put it down! Hey, sorry about that.”
I was incredulous. “You knew and you didn’t tell me?”
“Yeah, I saw it on Facebook. So sad. I guess he just got married again and they had a one month old baby.” She paused. “Fuck. Everyone seems to be dying lately.” We’d had a slew of old friends who’d died of addiction or suicide over the years. It was starting to become commonplace to get a message saying this or that friend had died. “Sorry I didn’t mention it. I didn’t really think you guys were close. I mean, I know we all used to hang out, but I honestly hadn’t seen him since Chris and I broke up in high school. Did you ever talk to him after high school?”
J and I had broken up shortly after the fire. He had moved and the logistics of seeing each other were too much for a budding teen romance. But we had remained on good terms and still ran in the same friend circles. “I saw him a couple times. And he was on my Facebook.” I’d seen him years before at a mutual friend’s party, and then once again after I responded to a post on his Facebook.
He’d been in a bad car accident, driven right into a brick wall. They were releasing him from the hospital, but he was homeless and in between jobs and had been sleeping in his car. His car had been totalled and he’d posted that he needed a place to stay. I messaged him to say that we didn’t have the space to put him up, but that I had some cash for him, if he needed it.
We met in the front drive of his friend’s house. He was late meeting me because he had to run to the liquor store with another friend. “To buy his host a six pack,” he said.
There was a livid bruise under his eye, the left side of his face swelled unnaturally and his arm was in a cast. Despite all the injuries, he still had the same pale blue eyes and was lean and handsome, and my pulse quickened when he said my name.
“Jen. Wow, you look fucking great. Still a babe.”
I blushed. “Thanks. You look like you lost a fight with a brick wall.”
We both laughed.
“Nice Jeep. This new?”
I nodded. He lit a cigarette and offered me one. I declined. I’d quit smoking well over a decade before.
He let out a plume of smoke into the cool night air and shook his cigarette at me. “So you got kids now, huh? Two girls right? Yeah, I see ‘em on your profile sometimes. Nice looking family. I got three with my ex. She doesn’t really want me hanging around the house though, wouldn’t even let me stay there after they discharged me. I’ll eventually get partial custody—once I find a job and get a permanent place.”
“I’ve seen some photos of yours too. They’re adorable. Blue eyed blondes, and good bones, just like their dad.”
He ran a hand through his hair, which was his natural ash blonde and cut short. I could tell he was proud of the resemblance. But his effusive smile soon turned to a frown. “Hey, so uh. Felicity, she uh, died recently.” There was a hitch in his voice, and he let out a sharp breath. “Overdose. I just thought you might want to know. She always liked you, you know.”
“Oh god. Shit J. I, I’m sorry.” The words felt so inadequate. I wanted to say something more, but that was all I could manage.
J had been the closest thing his brother and sister had to a parent. One of the things that had drawn me to him was the kindness he’d always shown to his younger siblings. I wanted to go to him and hold him, but he looked brittle, like he might shatter into a million little pieces if I touched him. Instead I said, “Here.” I thrust an envelope with some cash at him with embarrassment. “I hope this helps a bit, till you get on your feet.” It felt like such a paltry gesture.
Our lives had diverged so much. After my father, who’d been an addict and severely schizophrenic, had died in a shootout with police, I’d sworn off drugs and made an effort to manage my own tenuous mental health. But I’d borne painful witness to so many lost battles with addiction and mental illness that sometimes I wished I’d gone down alongside all of them. Each senseless loss of life weighed heavy on my chest, like stones, threatening to sink me. How could I go on like everything was ok after all the suffering I’d witnessed? I had managed to cultivate a nice life and was often embarrassed by what felt like an abundance of good fortune. My charity was not really for him, but to assuage my own guilty conscience for having escaped and joined the ranks of the middle class. A group of people who worked hard to push down the dissonance about the holes they saw in the social fabric, to remain oblivious to how the other half lived. I knew what it was like to be homeless, now I passed the homeless on the street with a hurried step, eyes averted and couldn’t even bring myself to offer up my couch to an old friend.
“Thanks. I appreciate it.” He dug his heel into the cement and fiddled with the envelope, then turned to leave. I watched his tall figure retreat up the drive, and it occurred to me that we were on different trajectories and our paths would likely never cross again.
Just before he reached the door he turned back and called out, “And hey, I’m going to pay you back.”
“Yeah sure,” I said. “Or don’t. Whatever. It’s not much anyway.”